Unpaid Internships: Are Employers Taking Advantage of the Job Market's Limited Career Choices?

A  search through the Los Angeles Craigslist job classifieds reveals 231 postings for unpaid positions --a bottom of the barrel career choice for most degree-holding & experienced candidates. Traditionally, these unpaid positions have been common in the fashion and entertainment industry, where stellar networking can eventually land an entry level candidate a highly coveted opportunity.

Now, unpaid positions are infiltrating a number of job markets. Whether you're looking for a marketing, social media, or accounting job, there's an unpaid position for you -- whatever your career choice and experience level. Companies lure applicants in with promises of connections, recommendations, and experience. Unfortunately, these types of positions  can't promise anything tangible -- like money.

Why make this career choice?

In today's down economy, a growing number of college grads

and established professionals are accepting unpaid or low-paying work in exchange for networking opportunities and resume boosters.  It's not just young people either. Believe it or not, some recently laid off industry veterans are working without pay for a chance to start over in a new field. The phenomenon sounds too good to be true -- for businesses at least. For the unpaid employees, it means working long hours without compensation.

Believe it or not, the United States Department of Labor established guidelines to protect employees from corporate sharks who are looking for free labor. In a nutshell, the unpaid opportunity needs to provide an education-based compensation package. Examples include course credit and professional training opportunities that are equivalent to classroom based instruction. If there is no benefit to the student, the Internship isn't okay -- so an internship that requires employees to sweep floors, file papers, answer phones, and clean toilets without pay is illegal. Unfortunately, accountability is tough to enforce, and companies get away with it.

The phenomenon gets even more troubling.

Unpaid interns aren't covered under employment protection laws because they aren't considered employees. According to Kathryn Edwards, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, a female intern's sexual harassment case was dismissed because she wasn't a real employee. So what does that mean? An employer can require an intern to work 12-hour days without compensation?

So what should you do?

As a society, we emphasize the value of work opportunities and experience. Even though some internships are exploitative, others provide excellent experience as an introduction to the working world. If you're considering an unpaid internship, remember that you are a free agent with the power to make your own career choice. Don't feel that you have to settle for an experience that teaches you nothing. After all a free internship pays nothing, so you need to find other ways to measure tangible value. Is this an entry to you dream job? Can you afford to work for free? Do you plan to land a position that pays? If you accent an unpaid position, make sure that you have a clear strategic plan for how the experience is worthwhile. Nobody's paying you, so why should you do it?

Photo Credit: Begottsab